Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Sundance ’16: Pleasure.Love

It is a case of life imitating art or the past repeating in the present or vice versa. The fates of a Jiang and a Hu are deeply intertwined, but their ultimate destinies will be rather slippery to nail down in Huang Yao’s Pleasure.Love, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Bitterly disappointed his neighborhood crush is suddenly unavailable, twenty-ish Jiang heads to a bar to drown his sorrows. However, he somehow manages to pick-up Hu Yajie, an attractive older professional woman who ought to be well outside his league. It does not take Jiang long to fall for her, even though she initially regards him as merely an amusing distraction. Unfortunately, just as she starts to develop feelings for the young man, she is ripped away from him.

That was the “Pleasure” segment. For “Love,” Huang flashes forward (or perhaps backwards) a few decades, just as the fresh faced “Hu” arrives to pursue a career in the big city. Much to her surprise, the misogynistic writer Jiang Nan takes an immediate interest in her. He gained a bit of notoriety for his steamy novel based on his relationship with a lover who died years ago and bequeathed her house to him (yes, we definitely recognize it from before).

Pleasure.Love is one of those Mobius strip films that eventually loop back into themselves, like Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain. Huang could have gotten away with it relatively cleanly, but he adds further diagonal time lines that completely muddy any sense of internal logic.

As maddening as Pleasure.Love can be at times, it is still consistently fascinating, especially for viewers familiar with Chinese cinema. Indeed, it is rather shocking to see a major Mainland movie star like Yu Nan in such a sexual frank film. Although there is no nudity per se, it is definitely mature in terms of themes and content. Presumably she still has a lot of good will banked from the PLA-supported Wolf Warrior.

She also gives an extraordinarily rich and nuanced performance as the older Hu. Guo Xiaodong makes the older, deeply flawed Jiang equally complex. Looking barely old enough to vote, Sun Yi is still wonderfully sensitive and vulnerable as the young Hu, but Ying Daizhen is much less so as the young Jiang.

Without question, Pleasure.Love is an achingly handsome production. You have probably never heard such lovely arrangements of “Auld Lang Syne.” Liu Younian’s gauzily romantic cinematography is also a thing of beauty. In truth, the film holds considerable artistic merit. Even though Huang gets a bit too cute with his temporal-narrative games, there are individual moments in the film that are absolutely arresting. Recommended for its overall look and wildly camera-friendly cast, Pleasure.Love screens again tomorrow (1/27) in Salt Lake and Friday (1/29) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.